Kate Zidar is making composting her mission in the most unlikely of places: the concrete-covered metropolis of New York City. “Composting is perfect for high-density urban living, and it’s critical because of New York’s poor soil quality and waste management problems,” Zidar says. “And worm composting works fast and take up a small amount of space.” Zidar, 29, who works for New York’s Lower East Side Ecology Center, says that individual composting — as opposed to community-wide programs — is the only way to make a significant dent in slashing the amount of trash generated in urban areas. New York City alone generates 9.5 tons of food waste each week; Zidar calculates that if all eight million New Yorkers fed their table scraps to worms in their own compost bins, the city could reduce food waste by 75 percent.

Zidar, who began experimenting with worm composting at home in 2004, has created a model that can help make that happen. While working her daily shift at the Green Dome community garden in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in the summer of 2005, Zidar encouraged curious passersby to check out the garden’s whirlpool-sized compost bin, which was writhing with worms. By that Thanksgiving, she had composted nearly two and a half tons of waste that had been donated by area residents who had stopped by to learn about her project. “I don’t know if that is one elephant or two,” Zidar says of the mass. [That’s eight to 10 baby African elephants by our count.—Ed.]

The popularity of this effort led Zidar to host a free worm composting workshop for the people she’d recruited through her impromptu summer lessons. Twenty people showed up; 10 went home with compost bins. She repeated the workshop in the summer of 2006, and was pleased that a few of the previous year’s waste donors didn’t show up — she assumes they’re at home feeding table scraps to their own worms.

Her enthusiasm for vermiculture struck not long after she moved to New York City in 1997, when she learned that the city was responsible for New York State’s No. 1 ranking as a garbage exporter, and her home state of Pennsylvania’s No. 1 ranking as a garbage importer. “I could just imagine throwing away a paper cup, it going into a garbage can, then being carried away by a truck that drives around my neighborhood,” she said. “I imagined it would be transferred to a long-distance hauler and eventually I’d be sending my cup back to my mom on Route 51 south of Pittsburgh. I took it a little bit personally.”

Zidar earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning and began working for the LES Ecology Center before graduating. Her job involves environmental advocacy, grant writing, and conducting workshops for kids and adults about composting, fishing, and the various powers of worms. “I had no affection for the red wiggler worm until I started showing them to a bunch of disinterested kids,” she says with a laugh. “In every teaching situation, the worms always win. Kids and adults might start out totally grossed out, but that melts away in the course of 20 minutes. Resistance is futile. Worms have total charm.”

Story by Emma Johnson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.